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Zapotec Language    Zapotec Religion    Zapotec Symbols

Zapotec Symbols
The Zapotecs along with the Mayans devised sophisticated and complex symbols that are thought be among Mesoamerica's earliest writing systems. The primary themes that appear in ancient Zapotec writing and symbols involve power and history. Symbols and writing provided a venue for Zapotecs to express their identities and to reference themselves in terms of time and space. Many glyphs have to do with naming people and places, referencing time, and expressing power.

Power is conveyed by illustrating human beings with clothing, adornments and postures that correspond to high status in real life, as well as through the use of masks and headdresses. By wearing a mask or headdress, the wearer was taking on another face and empowering himself to speak words of special significance. It is believed that leaders and priests wore masks and headdresses as marks of their power and authority over other members of society.


A glyph called "jaws of the sky" was used to locate people in space. The glyph frequently appears above human figures on carved stones and painted murals. Human figures are framed by the place glyph and sky jaws, thereby locating them symbolically between the earth and the sky.

Symbols appear in the rich array of Zapotec art that flourished during this period. Highly skilled craftsmen produced such works of art as carved stones, ceramic urns, painted murals, stuccoed sculptures, and engraved bone and stone.





The ancient Zapotecs also developed a 260 day calendar. It is known as a ritual calendar, or piye in Zapoteco. Time was expressed by a combination of 13 numerals and 20 symbols representing days.

A person was sometimes referred to in terms of his birthdate in the ritual calendar, for example, as 8 Deer, 10 Lizard, 5 House, and so on.

Ritual and solar calendars, that are based on pre-Hispanic calendars, are still used today among some Mixe, southern Zapotec, and other groups in Oaxaca.




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